By Ben Olson
You hear it in conversations at bars and restaurants all over town. Locals complain to one another about the summer tourist struggles but, when someone brings up September, their eyes soften. They look wistfully for the coming shoulder season like farmers scanning the skies for much-needed rain.
When it comes, the collective sound of relief rolls through our potholed residential streets. It’s almost enough to drown out the constant noise of construction from housing developments sprouting up behind billboards breathlessly declaring that something is, “Coming Soon!”
Summer in Sandpoint takes some getting used to — especially if you’ve lived here long enough to remember how quaint this town used to be, even during the busy tourist months.
Back then, summer was a ripe cherry, waiting to be plucked. There were camping trips with the family to Round Lake and Green Bay, rarely, if ever, interrupted by concerns about finding every spot occupied for the night. There was a carnival at Sandpoint City Beach every year around the Fourth of July, complete with rides, games and first kisses from that-one-girl-you-had-a-crush-on. Invitations from family friends to go boating on the lake would consume a whole day, with frequent stops at tree-lined beaches as far as the eye could see. There were Little League games, followed by boisterous dinners at Panhandler Pies or breakfasts at the Whistle Stop Cafe, long nights wandering around downtown Sandpoint without adult supervision, stopping to say hello to our parents’ work friends and maybe one of our teachers.
Summers were a busy time, but the chaos we now associate with our summers in Sandpoint wasn’t really a thing. Out-of-town visitors were frequent sights, but they were usually met with curious, genial conversations from locals interested in what exactly inspired these people to spend their vacation in our little corner of the world. Sandpoint was very much still a secret.
Now, during summers, we drive to our favorite trailheads and find there isn’t enough space to park — those places often choked out by rows of vehicles bearing out-of-state plates.
We ride bikes downtown for a date night dinner, only to turn around after seeing the line of people out the door at our favorite restaurant. We take deep breaths while driving five miles per hour behind some truck from Texas as the driver patrols for a parking spot on First Avenue, stopping at stop signs that don’t exist and blasting their horn at someone trying to use the crosswalk. We try not to let our eyes roll completely off the back of our heads while steering around motorhomes that have been parked in the diagonal spots downtown, completely blocking a whole lane of traffic.
The ripe cherry that was Sandpoint’s summer past is now a sour mash under our shoes as we navigate our way through each sweltering hot day after the next. The secret is out.
But once Labor Day comes and goes, it’s a different town. It’s the Sandpoint many of us remember. It’s shoulder season, roughly the span of time wedged between Labor Day and opening day at Schweitzer, which draws locals out of their summer hidey holes, many of them ravenous for connection with friends and loved ones again after their long hibernations.
Without these annual fall reprieves, Sandpoint would probably resemble any other soulless tourist town. These are much-needed times of respite, when locals feel as if they actually belong somewhere again.
That said, someone asked me the other day, “What happens if the shoulder seasons don’t come anymore? What if they’re a thing of the past, thanks to all this growth we’ve experienced?”
It’s an important question, if not a terrifying one. All signs are pointing to an uncomfortable new reality as the population keeps increasing. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Sandpoint had a population of 7,365 and Bonner County 40,877. By 2020, Sandpoint’s estimated population increased to 9,003 and Bonner County to 49,491.
That’s more than a 22% increase in Sandpoint in the past 10 years, and a 21% increase in Bonner County. It’s also important to underscore that the Census only went to 2020. Look around at how much growth has occurred over the past two years alone and you can be sure the actual numbers are far higher.
The population increase is enough to cause concern about growth getting out of control, but we also have to look beyond the number of people who are moving here and consider who exactly they are.
In decades past, Sandpoint saw a healthy mix of newcomers — young professionals, retirees, “blow-ins” who fell in love while crossing the Long Bridge, or those simply seeking a cool town with a ski hill and a lake that hadn’t been discovered (i.e. ruined) yet. Companies like Coldwater Creek once drew in hundreds of young professionals who raised families, sent their kids to public school and participated in community activities.
A recent report from Portland, Ore.-based Leland Consulting threw some shade over that quaint past with some stark new realities.
In a report to the Sandpoint City Council and Planning and Zoning commissioners, Leland outlined some pressing issues facing Sandpoint and Bonner County. The study analyzed land use, economics, population and housing demand and found that greater Sandpoint has experienced a dramatic level of growth over the past few years — most of it coming from wealthy, increasingly older newcomers. This growing demographic has resulted in driving up home values to a point where lower-income residents and workers have begun to be forced out.
Some statistics are especially telling: Leland found that the average income for in-migrants is around $91,000, while those leaving the community earn an average of almost $53,000. Also, the aggregate household yearly income due to net migration in Bonner County rose from $44 million in 2019 to a whopping $155 million in 2020 — a 250% increase.
Furthermore, recent data shows that 55% of Bonner County’s income is non-labor-based. For comparison, Ada County — the most populous county in the state and containing the capitol of Boise as its seat — is closer to 32%. This means that almost six out of 10 people living in Bonner County don’t rely on labor-based income, i.e. jobs.
Non-labor income generally refers to capital gains, dividends, interest, transfer payments, retirement payments, social security and medical payments such as Medicare.
Unlike most sources of labor income, non-labor income can be more difficult to see in a local economy. In 1970, non-labor income in Bonner County sat around 31%, rising to 43.8% in 1990, then 53.7% in 2013, according to a 2015 report by Headwaters Economics.
As more Baby Boomers retire, this number will continue to grow, as it has around the rest of the U.S.
With this number increasing more and more every year, it leaves some wondering who will be left to work when all the luxury condos have been built and sold.
People were drawn to North Idaho long before it becameen vogue. Whatever their reasons, it’s easy to look at the data and see that this new growth cycle is not sustainable. Those who move here to enrich themselves by systematically dismantling the very things that attracted them in the first place are a big part of the problem. The other part of the problem is ineffectual city and county governments whose answer to rampant growth is muttering “free market” with a shrug, while rubber stamping every luxury condo development that blows into town.
Eventually we’re going to have to face these growth struggles, as every other resort town has had to in the West, but it becomes increasingly frustrating knowing that the moment of action always seems to come years after the damage has been done.
For now, we have shoulder season, when Sandpoint is at its best — when locals finally reclaim their town from the tourists, developers, land rapers and grifters for this glorious period of time until the next big wave hits.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
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